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Egyptian Illustrator Sahar Abdallah Finds Inspiration in Modern Arab Poets

/ 21 Oct 2021

Egyptian Illustrator Sahar Abdallah Finds Inspiration in Modern Arab Poets

A recent exhibition by the prize-winning children’s book illustrator Sahar Abdallah was her second in Canada inspired by the works of modern Arab poets, in this case the late Egyptian poet Fouad Haddad.

The exhibition, which ran from September 2 to 9 at the Akin art collective’s Remote Gallery, in Toronto, had the same title as Haddad’s poem “Like a Lizard.” A previous show in the same city in 2018 was inspired by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

“The poem speaks of a rebellion; a girl who glorifies her freedom in a hymn, and identifies herself with an undulating lizard,” Sahar Abdallah told Al-Fanar Media.

“It is known that a lizard under attack may willingly shed its tail to preserve its freedom,” she added. “Thus, freedom has become its symbol.”

The lightness of Abdallah’s drawings recalls the easy vernacular of Fouad Haddad, popularly known in Egypt as “the father of poetry.”

Born in Cairo in 1927, Haddad was the son of a Syrian mother and a Lebanese academic father who became an Egyptian citizen. A member of the Egyptian Communist Party, Haddad was twice jailed, from 1953 to 1956 and from 1959 to 64. He died in 1985, aged only 57.

A Lust for Freedom

The drawings are also inspired by Egyptian folk art themes which recall the colloquial dialect of Haddad’s poem. The lizard itself is a notable folk art element and was often painted above the gates of homes to protect against evil.

In Abdallah’s drawings, a girl observes a lizard approaching her. They play the trumpet together and dance under the sun, until they merge into a single being.

“By this unification, the girl liberates herself and moves out from narrow places to wider spaces, to a freedom that she has always lusted for,” Abdallah said. “The girl acquires a free body, and a wider vision of life.”

The drawings are also inspired by Egyptian folk art themes which recall the colloquial dialect of Haddad’s poem. The lizard itself is a notable folk art element and was often painted above the gates of homes to protect against evil.

Other motifs include the roses and palm trees often painted on the walls of houses, and the triangular jewelry worn by the girl. All combine to reproduce a new narration of the search for freedom.

The unification of girl and lizard echoes the theme of mythical beings with dozens of eyes or arms. “Myths often attribute unusual characteristics or roles for animals and links between humans and animals, to invent unconventional non-existing mythical creatures,” Abdallah said. “This was to explain life’s hidden meanings.”

Mahmoud Darwish and Fouad Haddad

Abdallah, who is from Egypt and lives in Canada, held her first solo exhibition, “Visual Poems,” in 2018 at Toronto’s Public Library. It featured the original drawings of her two illustrated books: “Think of Others” and “So Said the Neglected Tree,” in which she converted two poems by Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) into visual works.

“Poetry, like music, is more abstract than a story,” she said. “It provides ample spaces for free expression of elements, bearing several interpretations, to create a visual vision that is not restricted by the story’s events, and thus liberating imagination. An idea takes us beyond the limits of words. This is what I yearn for in art and life alike.”

Her children’s illustrations have won many awards, including Egypt’s State Incentive Award and the United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature. She has been a finalist for Lebanon’s Mahmoud Kahil Award and was nominated for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, while one of her illustrations was selected as among the best in the 2021 International Exhibition’s third edition (Ilustrofest) in Serbia.

Moreover, her illustrations were selected to be included in this year’s catalogue of the International Youth Library, in Munich. Abdallah thinks this recognition celebrates the Arab child. “Libraries in European countries and the USA have sections of books in different languages, to promote multiculturalism and support children’s literature,” she said.

Parallel Creative Worlds

“Poetry, like music, is more abstract than a story, It provides ample spaces for free expression of elements, bearing several interpretations, to create a visual vision that is not restricted by the story’s events, and thus liberating imagination. An idea takes us beyond the limits of words. This is what I yearn for in art and life alike.”

Abdallah’s drawings have found their way into the adult world as well. “I still find pleasure reading stories from Dar Al-Fata Al-Arabi (Arab Children Publishing House), for a successful children’s book is not limited to young age,” she said.

“Although my first passion is children’s books, they are also works where we can see a narration that leads us to a pure beauty far from written texts.”

The aesthetics of Abdallah’s visual narratives is evident in her illustration of Hadil Ghoneim’s 2019 book “Shaharzizi Nights.” The stories in the book are inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights,” and some are framed in other stories. (See a related article, “Series Brings Alive Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers.”)

“The drawings of the two main protagonists (Shaharzizi and Amroyar) were in colour, while the tales’ illustrations were in black and white, so that the design and artistic execution can complete placing the drawing in a framework which the characters try to depart, leaving it to another story,” Abdallah said.

“Two fonts were used to confirm the same idea, separating what is happening now from the tales dating back to ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’”

Moving to Canada

Besides her art, Abdallah devotes her time to exploring the history of illustration. A constant search into past and new developments makes an illustrator more aware of what to paint and what to present, she says.

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She believes her move in Canada in 2017 has had a great impact on this research.

“Between Egypt and Canada, my characters move with me and evolve, along with a growing sense of connection to my roots, a deeper search for identity, and more questions,” she said. “Settling in another country multiplies one’s experiences and broadens your vision, yet it also pushes you to search for your homeland over and over again.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام